The Whistleblower Versus Robert Mugabe and the United Nations

Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is a corrupt authoritarian.  The United Nations is a wasteful, inefficient organization that tolerates corrupt authoritarians.  Unfortunately, the two don’t make beautiful music together.

Not everyone at the UN is corrupt.  One hero is Georges Tadonki, a Cameroonian who for a time headed the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Zimbabwe.  The others are three judges in a United Nations Dispute Tribunal who last year ruled for Tadonki in a suit against the international organization.

Soon we will find if members of a UN appeals panel possess equal courage.  That ruling is expected soon with rumors circulating that these judges might reverse course and absolve the organization of misconduct.

In 2008 President Robert Mugabe, who took power in 1980, and ZANU-PF, the ruling party, used violent intimidation to preserve their control.  At the time Tadonki had been on station for six years and predicted epidemics of both cholera and violence. 

Unfortunately, UN country chief Agostinho Zacarias dismissed Tadonki’s warnings.  By the end of the year 100,000 people had been infected with cholera and thousands had died.  During the election campaigns hundreds also had been killed by government thugs, who succeeded in derailing democracy. 

Naturally, no good deed went unpunished.  After extended discord between the two UN officials, Tadonki was fired in January 2009.  There was little doubt that the action was retaliation for being right and embarrassing Zacarias—who now serves the UN in South Africa. 

The controversy demonstrates that something is very wrong with the UN system.  Tadonki decided to fight, though he had to ask the international law firm Amsterdam & Peroff to handle the litigation on a pro bono basis.  Last year the UN Dispute Tribunal based in Kenya heard his case and Judges Vinod Boolell, Nkemdilim Izuako, and Goolam Merran issued their 104-page judgment. 

They concluded “that the Applicant was not, at all material times, treated fairly and in accordance with due process, equity and the core values of the Charter of the Organization” and that OCHA management ignored the UN’s “humanitarian values.”  The tribunal ordered the UN to apologize for its misbehavior, investigate the mistreatment of Tadonki, hold his superiors accountable for their misconduct, cover Tadonki’s litigation costs, pay past salary through the judgment date, and provide $50,000 in “moral damages for the extreme emotional distress and physical harm suffered by the Applicant.”

Explained the judges:  “This case has brought to light not only managerial ineptitude and highhanded conduct but also bad faith from the top management of OCHA.  This mismanagement and bad faith were compounded by a sheer sense of injustice against the applicant who was hounded right from the beginning.” 

Perhaps even worse was the larger environment in which this misconduct occurred.  Observed the tribunal:  “There was a humanitarian drama unfolding and people were dying.  Part of the population had been abandoned and subjected to repression.  The issue between Tadonki and Zacarias was to what extent these humanitarian concerns should be exposed and addressed and the risk that there was of infuriating the Mugabe government.”

The tribunal’s conclusion is devastating:  “the political agenda that RC/HC Zacarias was engaged in with the Government of Zimbabwe far outweighed any humanitarian concerns that OCHA may have had.”  Of course, “The UN and Zacarias’s chief responsibility should have been to Zimbabwe’s embattled civilian population.  Instead, both failed to live up to their obligations—even as they were conspiring against someone who had exceeded them.”

But as I note in my new American Spectator online article:  “the final resolution depends on the appellate process, which is approaching its decision.  Hopefully Georges Tadonki and the three tribunal judges are not the only UN officials willing to do what’s right, irrespective of cost.”